Scholars ask whether the “rock” of Peter on which the Church was founded was Peter’s person or his faith. I think it was his human weakness supported by divine grace.
Peter was not educated. He may not have been very bright. He has more recorded sins and errors in the Gospels than any other individual mentioned. He was wrong every time he opened his mouth except twice. He was a coward before and after the Resurrection (Matthew 26:34; Galatians 2:11-14). When he denied Jesus he cursed and swore. In short, he was not an all-around model of human virtue. And this is the man Jesus chose to be the first pope.
How explain that, unless Jesus wanted to make clear that the Church is not founded on human brains or virtue, or any other quality of any created being? When we call the pope “Your Holiness,” that is based on hope, not on history. So the Church is on just as solid a foundation when we have a stupid pope as she is when we have a wise one. If the pope is the worst sinner in the world, the Church is still on the most solid foundation that exists. She is founded on human weakness supported by divine grace.
Peter’s first act after being named pope was to reject Christ’s teaching and try to lead the Church astray (Matthew 16:22). Then he publicly denied the faith under oath (Matthew 26:72). But God was still able to hold the early Church together through him. Jesus never promised that the popes would not lead the Church in false directions, teach error in their “ordinary magisterium,” or be shocking examples of corrupt Christian living. He just promised that, in spite of their sins and errors and weaknesses, the gates of Hell will never prevail against his Church. She is founded on rock, and in Peter we see the kind of rock that is.
St. John Chrysostom is supposed to have said, “The road to hell is paved with the skulls of bishops.” In previous centuries nobles bought promotion to bishop for their sons. It was commonplace for bishops to lead armies into war, live opulent, debauched lives, and gobble up church revenues. They did great damage to the Church; they may have helped bring on the French Revolution and the Protestant Reformation. When Napoleon boasted to the Archbishop of Paris that he would destroy the Catholic Church, the bishop replied, “Priests and bishops have been trying to do that for 1800 years and have failed. What makes you think you’ll succeed?” The Catholic apologist Frank Sheed wrote: “We are not baptized into the hierarchy; do not receive the Cardinals sacramentally; will not spend an eternity in the beatific vision of the pope. Christ is the point.,,, Even if I find the Church, as I have to live with it, a pain in the neck, I should still say that nothing a pope (or a priest) could do or say would make me wish to leave the Church, although I might well wish that they would leave.”
Our faith is not in the priests, bishops or pope, but in the promise of Jesus Christ that his Church will survive, regardless of whether his ministers are good or bad, fervent or pharisaical, holy or hellbound. Its foundation is human weakness supported by grace.
The Church can decline. Her members can defect. We need to work against this. But the remedy is not in the hierarchy; it is in each individual Catholic’s response to grace. You are the hope of the Church.
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